With that said, a search of the records reveals there may indeed be some type of cosmic chicanery afoot. Call it: Curse of the UT QBs or How I Ended My Big Orange Signal Calling Career on a Sour Note.
You see the last four starting Tennessee quarterbacks have ended their college football careers with lopsided losses in bowl games. The latest in this lineup of stellar talent was Tee Martin against Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl, 31-21. Then there was everybody's All-American (now All Pro) Peyton Manning who also lost to Nebraska in the 1998 Orange Bowl, 42-17. It was the first bowl loss Manning ever suffered at Tennessee and it followed the first serious injury of his four-year college career.
Before Peyton, Heath Shuler went down in flames to Penn State in the 1994 Citrus Bowl, 31-13. Finally, Andy Kelly felt the sting of defeat by a count of 42-17 to Penn State in the 1992 Fiesta Bowl.
In chronological order that's losses of 42-17 to Penn State, 31-13 to Penn State, 42-17 to Nebraska and 31-21 to Nebraska.
Is there a pattern here?
Well there's Penn State and Nebraska with winning totals of 42 and 31. Some would say Penn State and Nebraska were enough during that recent era to explain the defeats, but history challenges that assertion. During their collective careers, these four Vol signal callers won bowl games over the likes of Florida State, Ohio State and Virginia Tech. So it can't be simply playing a tough opponent.
Furthermore, the bowl losses were by an average of 20.25 points per game. This is against starting quarterbacks who amassed an amazing record of 109-16-2 during their UT careers, including a perfect 7-0 mark in bowl games before losing their last bowl game. As starters: Kelly was 29-5-2, Shuler was 19-4, Manning was 39-5 and Martin was 22-2 before going a collective 0-4 in their final games as Volunteers.
Three of the four UT quarterbacks were seniors, while Shuler was a junior who turned pro after his junior season. To find a UT senior quarterback who won his last bowl game you have to go back to Daryl Dickey in the 1986 Sugar Bowl against Miami, 35-7.
However Dickey didn't become a starter until Tony Robinson went down with a knee injury against Alabama that year. Jeff Francis started three seasons as UT's signal caller but the Vols didn't reach a bowl during his senior season of 1988 – the last time Tennessee didn't earn a bowl invitation. Allan Cockrell led Tennessee to a 30-23 victory over Maryland in the Citrus Bowl as a junior, but didn't return for his senior season, electing instead to enter the Major League Draft.
Jimmy Streater was a three-year starter who saw his college career end in a 27-22 loss to Purdue in the Astro Bluebonnet Bowl. Condredge Holloway,another three-year starter, led Tennessee to the Liberty Bowl in 1974 against Maryland and the Vols came away with a 7-3 win against the Randy White-led Terps. However, Holloway was injured in that contest and sophomore Randy Wallace entered in relief to throw the game-winning contest to Larry Seivers.
JUCO Steve Alatore did finish his UT career with a victory over Wisconsin in the Garden State Bowl, but he took over that year for freshman Allan Cockrell who tore a knee ligament after earning the starting job. To find a UT senior quarterback who started from the beginning of the season and finished his career with a bowl victory, you have to go all the way back to Bobby Scott in the 1970 Sugar Bowl when the Vols beat Air Force, 38-13.
Perhaps there's a logical explanation for this implausible pattern of bowl losses. Maybe having an experienced quarterback gives a team a false sense of security. In other words, players tend to relax a little and wait for the veteran task master to pull them out of the fire.
May it's just a wild coincidence, but the fact is: seven of Tennessee's top eight passers in school history either passed up their senior year, saw it end in a bowl defeat, via injury, or didn't qualify for post season play at all. Included among that elite list of career passing leaders are Manning, Kelly, Francis, Martin, Shuler, Cockrell and Streater. The eighth quarterback on that list is Casey Clausen, who will get his chance to overcome the curse against Clemson in the same locale that the Vols have experienced two of their most devastating post season defeats ever vs. LSU and Maryland. To put an end to this baffling 33-year streak, Clausen will have to overcome more than Clemson's defense.
Sure it all seems a little farfetched, but what curse doesn't?